You’re having dinner at your favorite restaurant and a guest at a nearby table collapses. You think it’s a heart attack, but what should you do to help?

A heart attack is a life-threatening emergency that requires quick intervention. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every 40 seconds someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. That’s approximately 805,000 people a year.

National CPR and AED Awareness Week (June 1-7) is coming up so it’s a good time to focus on how to help someone who is having a heart attack.

Soundos Moualla, MD, FACC, FSCAI, is an interventional cardiologist as well as director of the Structural Heart program and co-director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at the James Family Heart Center at Dignity Health YRMC.

What is a heart attack?
Heart attacks are caused by a blockage in one or more of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The blockage occurs when plaque inside the artery breaks open and a blood clot forms in the artery.

“This sudden interruption of blood flow to the heart must be corrected quickly as every minute counts: time equals muscle,” says Soundos Moualla, MD, FACC, FSCAI, interventional cardiologist, the James Family Heart Center at Dignity Health Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC).

If the blockage is not treated quickly, the portion of the heart muscle that’s fed by the blocked artery will be severely damaged.

How to recognize a heart attack
The symptoms of a heart attack vary and may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Discomfort in the arms, neck, back, or jaw
  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or passing out
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea and perspiration
  • Upper abdominal/stomach discomfort

While women may experience chest pain and pressure like men, they’re more likely to have other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and upper abdominal discomfort. Sixty-five percent of women seeking medical help for heart attack do not experience classic chest pain.

CPR saves lives
Cardiac arrest/sudden cardiac death can be a devastating result of a heart attack. In that circumstance, CPR should begin immediately by a bystander and be taken over by a paramedic or other emergency medical service (EMS) professionals when they arrive. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends administering forceful and rapid compressions at a rate of 100-120 per minute.

“Learning CPR is critical because it saves lives,” Dr. Moualla says. “CPR mimics the pumping of the heart, delivering blood and oxygen to the brain. It essentially buys time until further medical assistance and intervention can happen. The American Heart Association has sponsored a campaign for the last 20 years to increase awareness of CPR and encourage CPR training among the general population.”

The AED comes to your aid
An automated external defibrillator (AED) is an easy-to-use device that can revive someone in the event of cardiac arrest. Found in many public places – schools, police departments, police vehicles, grocery stores, airports, and malls – the success of an AED depends on its accessibility.

“We need more AED units everywhere and increased public awareness of them,” says Dr. Moualla. “AEDS can be used safely and effectively, even by people who have not been trained.”

How can you help someone in distress?

  • Always call 911 first. If other people are present, ask them to look for an AED.
  • If the person is unresponsive, administer CPR and activate the AED.
  • If the person is conscious and breathing, they should slowly chew 325 milligrams of aspirin while waiting for the ambulance. Aspirin can reduce the degree of heart damage and the significance of the blood clot.

Be prepared
Learning CPR and retaining your certification can make you feel confident in case of a medical emergency. Look for classes through the AHA and the American Red Cross.